OC Transpo fares to rise May 1 as ridership remains well below normal

Ridership on Ottawa's public transit system remain nowhere near the numbers that rode the bus and train in pre-pandemic times, but OC Transpo still plans to implement an annual fare increase on May 1.

Ridership on buses and trains in January 2022 barely half of expected number, commission hears

People wearing masks cross Gladstone Avenue in Ottawa after getting off an OC Transpo bus. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Ridership on Ottawa's public transit system remains nowhere near the numbers that rode the bus and train in pre-pandemic times, but OC Transpo still plans to implement an annual fare increase on May 1.

Transit commission heard Wednesday that overall ridership in 2021 averaged just 32 per cent of what used to be considered normal back in 2019. 

Last year saw COVID-19 restrictions and train derailments, including one that closed the Confederation Line for almost eight weeks. Meanwhile, large numbers of passengers who work in the public service or attend school continued to stay home in 2021.

Ottawa ended the year at 45 per cent ridership for December, which saw strong ridership in the early weeks that tapered off when the Omicron wave hit. That month, the fare gates were left open for people to ride free of charge — a move by transit commission chair Allan Hubley and Mayor Jim Watson after the inconvenience of the derailments. 

A separate motion by Hubley last fall delayed the regular 2.5 per cent transit fare hike due on Jan. 1 until one month after 15 trains were available to run on the Confederation Line.

General manager Renée Amilcar said the train's maintenance firm is regularly able to have 15 trains available — even if 11 trains suffice at the moment with the other four used as spares. So the fare hike will take place May 1.

Commissioner concerns

Transit commissioners repeated many concerns from past meetings, including the "juxtaposition of raising fares and expecting ridership to go up," per Bay ward Coun. Theresa Kavanagh.

"Clearly we'll lose revenue if people are turned off because of the increase in fare," she said.

Chief financial officer Wendy Stephanson explained the city's 30-year plans call for those regular, steady rises in transit fares in order to improve the transit system, and Amilcar agreed.

River ward Coun. Riley Brockington said ridership projections used in city budgeting continue to be loftier than actual ridership levels.

Staff had earlier projected January would see ridership return to 60 per cent of normal levels, for instance, but only hit 35 per cent. That led to a $10 million shortfall that had to be covered by the province, the commission heard.

Ottawa's transit general manager Renée Amilcar says transit fares will increase on May 1. (Jacques Corriveau/CBC)

Stephanson said the federal government recently announced $750 million to cover transit operating shortfalls in all Canadian municipalities, but she doesn't yet know Ottawa's share.

Brockington said he is concerned that won't be enough, and wants the mayor to write to federal cabinet ministers asking for the government to offset OC Transpo's operating expenses beyond this year.

"I think Ottawa is going to be hurt long-term greater than other municipalities," he said. He pointed to the large number of federal public servants in the city and the government's decision to allow hybrid models of work.

"The fact is, our public transit system will be impacted. The same amount of workers who were using our transit system before COVID hit will not be the same. It will be fewer."

Other commissioners also said it's time to look at a new normal and traffic patterns that have changed. Riders are using transit to run errands within their neighbourhoods instead of commuting to the core, some said.

OC Transpo staff said they are gathering data route by route to see where routes might need to be reinstated or added due to transit demand, while the future opening of Stage 2 of light rail will give transit planners a chance to re-examine the network.

Amilcar also suggested future transit use might not see a strong peak for morning and afternoon commutes as it did before the pandemic.

As for the city's long-term approach to paying for transit, and how much comes from fares compared to taxes, Stephanson said that report will go to the finance committee in June.